Angry university and college bosses have attacked the latest Scottish budget, warning it will hit them with a real-terms funding cut during a period of unprecedented disruption.

The 2022/23 spending plan, unveiled on Thursday by Finance Secretary Kate Forbes, says higher and further education (HE/FE) institutions will receive over £1.9 billion.

It also claims this investment will protect their role in "driving an inclusive economy, delivering high quality education and training for the future workforce, and ensuring young people from disadvantaged backgrounds continue to have access to and succeed in higher education”.

Universities and colleges are currently battling to secure recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic – even as the Omicron variant threatens to bring a fresh wave of upheaval.

Now, in hard-hitting responses, sector bosses have indicated their efforts could well be sent into reverse by new funding allocations.  

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Professor Sir Gerry McCormac, Convener of Universities Scotland (US), the representative body for HE institutions, said: “Our initial assessment is that this budget will cut university funding for teaching and research in real terms in 2022/23.

“This leaves universities with less resource to meet the very real needs of our students and staff and less resource to invest in university research as a driver of economic growth and as a substantial means of bringing in further investment into Scotland.

“We had hoped that the Scottish Government would recognise the need to invest more in our students, on a per student basis, given the huge disruption they have faced as a group and the quantifiable toll the past two years has taken on their academic and mental wellbeing.”

US analysts said HE-related figures within Ms Forbes’ budget suggested there would be a £21 million uplift. But they stressed this was all aimed at financing additional undergraduate places created in 2020 and 2021 to accommodate learners affected by alternative assessment in schools.

They said the money for an increase in volume, as defined by places, would do nothing to increase the funding level available per undergraduate student, adding that this had been declining year on year since 2014/15.

HeraldScotland: An aerial view of Glasgow University's central quadrangle. Higher and further education institutions are are key contributors to Scotland's economy - but some fear the latest budget could weaken their position.An aerial view of Glasgow University's central quadrangle. Higher and further education institutions are are key contributors to Scotland's economy - but some fear the latest budget could weaken their position.

The organisation also noted that the last budget saw some Covid consequentials go to HE for the first year of a number of multi-year funding commitments. These included several hundred graduate apprenticeships at an annual cost of around £7m. However, US stressed the funding was not stated in university budget lines for 2021/22 and so its loss within Ms Forbes' 2022/23 spending plan is less obvious.

US leaders have also claimed complete withdrawal of this money and the lack of replacement additional funding from the Scottish Government block grant indicates a ministerial expectation that universities can continue to deliver the activity by drawing on existing core budgets. That, they said, would further decrease the resource invested in every undergraduate student.

Sir Gerry added: “It seems that universities have lost all of the Covid consequential funding from last year which addressed the first-year of multi-year commitments.

“It is far from clear as to how this scale of cut can possibly be absorbed by universities given our declining core budgets. Our Funding Council uses the term ‘emergency’ to describe the impact of the pandemic on universities yet there is nothing in this budget which acknowledges this situation.

“Universities need to see these chronic funding challenges addressed in the multi-year spending review process next year and, more immediately, if new Covid consequential funding becomes available from the UK Government, we believe that higher education has a very strong case given its significant role in supporting the recovery.”

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College leaders appear equally unimpressed. Ken Milroy, Chair of Colleges Scotland, said: “The draft budget built around delivering an economic recovery for Scotland, investment in health, and which takes steps to tackle the climate emergency, clearly puts an emphasis on Scotland’s ability to create and maintain a skilled workforce. Colleges will continue to be an integral part of economic recovery and delivering the skilled workforce the Scotland needs.

“The revenue and capital available to the sector is a flat cash position and unfortunately represents a real-terms cut because of inflationary pressures including on pay and rising energy costs in Scotland’s colleges. 

“For revenue for 2022/23, colleges will receive £675.7m, the same as in 2021/22.  The capital expenditure announced today totals £74.7m – the capital funding available to the sector remains the same at £33.7m, plus an additional £41m for the Dunfermline Learning Campus and for a share of digital investment.”

He added: “Today the Cabinet Secretary confirmed that in May next year there will be another budget in line with the framework for multi-year funding published today. 

“Colleges Scotland has for some time has been advocating for colleges to receive multi-year funding to ensure sustainability of the sector and we will continue to advocate strongly for the college sector as preparatory work takes place ahead of the budget in May.”